Schools in England face a repair bill of more than £11bn, nearly double some previous estimates, according to a long-awaited national survey completed by the government.
The survey confirmed years of complaints by teachers and parents of crumbling buildings and leaking facilities, in some cases riddled with asbestos, and of “temporary” cabins that remain in use despite exceeding their lifespan.
The DfE also opened a consultation on fire safety in school buildings but was criticised for recommending that sprinklers should only be installed in any newbuilds over 11 metres tall, effectively four storeys or higher.
The repairs survey, which involved visits to 22,000 state schools starting in 2017, has been repeatedly delayed. Its final publication may be part of an effort by the DfE to wring more funding for repairs from the Treasury in the comprehensive spending review later this year.
The report stated that “remedial work to repair or replace all defective elements” will cost £11.4bn, while a report by the National Audit Office in 2017 estimated that it would cost £6.7bn to return all school buildings to satisfactory condition.
“While this was calculated on a slightly different basis, this does demonstrate that the overall condition need in the estate has grown over the last six years,” the report said in comparing the NAO’s results with its own findings.
The new survey found that £2.5bn was needed for electrical and IT repairs alone, while repairs to boilers and air-conditioning was £2bn and mending roofs, windows and walls was £1.5bn.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders and a former secondary school head, said he was “horrified” to see the size of the repair bill.
“The fact that this appears to have significantly increased over the past few years tends to suggest the government has utterly failed to get to grips with the problem,” Barton said.
“The trouble is that the funding system for capital projects is extraordinarily complicated and relies on schools bidding for pots of money. There appears to be no real strategic oversight going on at government level.”
A DfE spokesperson said: “Our new 10-year school rebuilding programme, which will transform 500 schools, is under way and will improve the education of tens of thousands of children. We have invested £11.3bn since 2015 in refurbishing school buildings, including £1.8bn in 2021-22 alone.”
But Paul Whiteman of the National Association of Head Teachers said the government’s capital spending on schools had declined by 44% between 2009-10 and 2019-20.
“The government has stated that it wants every pupil to receive a superb education – a key part of this should be a schools estate that is fit for purpose,” Whiteman said.
Following the survey, England’s schools will receive individual reports on the repairs identified. The study found that the total school estate covers more than 500 square kilometres in buildings and school land – bigger than most UK cities.
The DfE also announced revisions to its fire safety design guidance, which currently has only an “expectation” that new buildings have sprinklers installed. In recent years only one in three new school builds have included sprinklers.
The new rules would “give clear guidance” that sprinklers should be installed in new special schools and boarding accommodation, as well as school buildings with floors higher than 11 metres above ground.
Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said: “These proposals are a step in the right direction but why doesn’t the government go further and take the opportunity to protect all new and refurbished school buildings from the avoidable devastation and huge repair costs of a fire?”
Tilden Watson, head of education at Zurich Municipal, which specialises in school insurance, said: “By limiting sprinklers to schools above 11 metres, the government is effectively writing off a significant proportion of the school estate. This will create a two-tier system of safety, which is arbitrary and ill-thought-through.
“As predominantly single-storey buildings, primary schools will be hardest hit, especially as they already suffer nearly twice the rate of blazes as secondary schools.”